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French pension reform sparks controversy

In the wake of the French government’s decision to increase the overall retirement age to 62 (from the current 60) over the course of the next 8 years, unions and leftists have come out yelling “unfair”. But they fail to realize just how important reform is for France’s future, if it is to ever balance its budget and have enough money to go around for the baby-boomer generation and future generations. Plus, France’s retirement age is among the lowest in Europe and the OECD countries, and the life expectancy has gone up so people are able to work longer.

One of the main debate points is whether or not retirement should be determined by number of years worked or a fixed age, no matter how long you have worked.

Those with “special regimes” such as many civil servants (“fonctionnaires”) weigh on the country’s collective financial resources, undermining the stability of my generation. To drive their point home, SNCF and others will be doing what they know best, going on strike, this Thursday June 24.

A couple of articles in French go into depth about the issue, such as La Croix, and Les Echos.

Apparently by one account, 54% of French are opposed to the current reform proposals, with 45% being in favor of it.

The Economist published a couple articles talking about French reform and how though a good start, it is not going far enough. I agree and would be interested in hearing your feedback.

The first one, “State of Denial” and the second article, “How buoyant is France?”. Excerpts from the first one:

THE French government’s long-awaited pension reform, which was announced on June 16th, turns out to be at once symbolically bold and yet ultimately disappointing. Under a plan unveiled by Eric Woerth, the labour minister, France intends to raise the legal retirement age progressively from 60 to 62 by 2018. Since this alone will not meet the state pension-fund shortfall, the government will increase the top rate of income tax from 40% to 41% from next year, and tax capital gains, stock options and other financial income more heavily. It will also align civil servants’ pension contributions with those in the private sector by 2020. In all, the government thinks it can balance the pension fund, which currently has a €32 billion deficit, by 2018.

The symbolism of this change is clear. It was President François Mitterrand in the early 1980s who introduced retirement at 60 as a mark of progress, and it remains a totem for the left and the right. Martine Aubry, the Socialist Party leader, instantly called the government’s plan “irresponsible”, and says that the Socialists will reverse it if they are elected to power in 2012. Union leaders too have queued up to denounce the reforms. François Chérèque, one union boss, called it “a provocation”. A day of strikes and protests is planned for June 24th.

As a statement about France’s long-run resolve to control its public finances, it is also reasonably serious. France is running a high budget deficit (8% in 2010), which is closer to that of Greece (9%) than Germany (5%). Its gross public debt is forecast to be 85% this year. And it is under pressure from the credit-ratings agencies to send a strong message of its determination to get a grip on public finances.

Yet the plan is still disappointing, for several reasons. First, mindful of the resistance that this will prompt on the streets, President Nicolas Sarkozy has not been bold enough to raise the retirement age very high. Current pension reforms in other euro-zone countries go much further. Spain, for instance, is lifting its retirement age to 67 years by 2025. Nothing short of retirement at 65 in France would have constituted a true overhaul.

Second, the reform resolves the pension shortfall only until 2020. According to calculations by Laurence Boone, an economist at Barclays Capital in Paris, the pension-fund deficit will widen to €24.5 billion by 2030. In other words, it is yet another stop-gap measure in a system that will need further adjustments later on. Finally, the government’s forecasts are based on some fairly heroic assumptions about the French economy. One such is that the rate of unemployment, which is currently running at 10%, will by 2021 fall as low as 4.5%. Yet it has not reached that level since 1978. It could well be that equilibrium in the pension fund by 2018 turns out to be something of a mirage…

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